Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s “Learning to Read”

Very soon the Yankee teachers
   Came down and set up school;
But, oh! how the Rebs did hate it,—
   It was agin’ their rule.
Our masters always tried to hide
   Book learning from our eyes;
Knowledge did’nt agree with slavery—
   ’Twould make us all too wise.
But some of us would try to steal
   A little from the book.
And put the words together,
   And learn by hook or crook.
I remember Uncle Caldwell,
   Who took pot liquor fat
And greased the pages of his book,
   And hid it in his hat.
And had his master ever seen
   The leaves upon his head,
He’d have thought them greasy papers,
   But nothing to be read.
And there was Mr. Turner’s Ben,
   Who heard the children spell,
And picked the words right up by heart,
   And learned to read ’em well.
Well, the Northern folks kept sending
   The Yankee teachers down;
And they stood right up and helped us,
   Though Rebs did sneer and frown.
And I longed to read my Bible,
   For precious words it said;
But when I begun to learn it,
   Folks just shook their heads,
And said there is no use trying,
   Oh! Chloe, you’re too late;
But as I was rising sixty,
   I had no time to wait.
So I got a pair of glasses,
   And straight to work I went,
And never stopped till I could read
   The hymns and Testament.
Then I got a little cabin
   A place to call my own—
And I felt independent
   As the queen upon her throne.
A lesson plan for this poem can be found here.

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